As a frequent traveller to foreign lands, I make it a point to try and promote the best of Indian culture abroad. This has resulted in friends in northern Europe learning how to make aapam, puttu and other Kerala delicacies. Many Russian friends have Kathakali masks at home and crave for 'genuine' Indian tea and Bengali or North Indian sweets.
In this context, I was thrilled when a friend in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk asked for copy of 'Panchatantra' tales. Being absolutely comfortable with English, she said she could translate the stories as she read them to her children. When I went to a couple of popular bookstores in Mumbai, I was shocked to see the only published copy of the ancient Indian collection of fables had illustrations depicting European landscapes and European-looking people! The characters had red or blonde hair and blue eyes, and the forests and buildings looked distinctly European. The book was published by a small-time publishing house in east Delhi. I really wonder what their aim was? Were they trying to make children ashamed of their Indian features and seek some sort of foreign ideal?
This incident made me think of a few images of Krishna that I saw on framed pictures and calendars in Guruvayur. The only thing blue about this Unnikannan was his eyes! One would easily believe from looking at that picture that the brown-haired Krishna was from Ukraine. These images were being sold in the very land that produced the likes of Raja Ravi Verma. They essentially reflect a greater malaise that is prevalent among Malayalis both in Kerala and elsewhere.
Way too many of us are ashamed of being “Mallus!” I’ve had friends tell me to not grow a moustache, lest I look like a 'chetan.' The Malayalam word for an elder brother is now used mockingly by some non-resident Keralites to mock those who have the so-called typical Malayali look. Some of these friends insist that their surname isn’t pronounced as Ménon, but as Mennen! Apparently this pronunciation sounds 'cooler' or more acceptable to foreigners and people from the rest of India. I don’t think I have ever come across any other set of people that mispronounce their own names to please others!
My Malayalam is far from perfect, and I am ashamed that I can’t comfortably read some of the great works of Malayalam literature in the original. I am not going to use the excuse of not being raised in Kerala or not getting a formal education in Malayalam. That’s a bogus excuse. I know enough Bengalis who haven’t spent more than two weeks at a time in West Bengal and have studied in schools where Bengali wasn’t even an option, yet read the works of Tagore in the original with ease. I have made a conscious effort to get my Malayalam to the level of the literary giants I admire, but if I mention this to a fellow Malayali, I’d get mocked for wasting my time on a pursuit that won’t bring me much financial rewards.
Malayali culture has come under assault from a large number of self-hating people whose minds are colonised by the West. A relative of mine wanted to have mehendi, sangeet and other non-Malayali customs for her wedding, since she didn’t want what she called “a bland Mallu wedding.” She argued that India was famous in the West for extravagant wedding ceremonies. So here we have a Malayali girl who wants to have north Indian excess in her wedding to another Malayali so that the Western guests would be impressed. Fair enough, but who pays for all this? Dear old dad, of course! So she’s not that Western in mindset, after all!
Many people from my mother’s generation in Palakkad only ate at restaurants in their childhood when they stopped at Thrissur on their way to Guruvayur. They ate clean, healthy and whole foods and were generally in good shape. Five decades later, Kerala is facing an obesity epidemic and I suspect that the Westernised Malayalis are also facing the music when it comes to the changes in their lifestyle.
As someone who loves to travel, I believe there’s a lot we can learn from others and their lifestyles and outlooks. At the same time let’s preserve the best of what Kerala and Malayali culture have to offer. I am not calling for chauvinism or excessive pride in being Malayalis, but the exact opposite attitude does a lot of harm to the Keralite’s psyche. Someone once suggested that I get Westerners hooked on Malayali culture. The idea was that many young Keralites who blindly ape the west would suddenly start focussing on things like Kerala’s traditional performing arts and Kalaripayattu. This is what we’ve come to!